For the Love of Peat
The Walrus|November 2021
Preserving Canada’s wetlands may be our best defence against floods, wildf ires, and a changing climate
Edward Struzik

WHEN THE 2016 Horse River Fire began making its run toward Fort Mc-Murray, wildfire fighters were shocked by its severity and speed. The region, once dominated by wet peatlands, had been drained to make way for a tree-planting experiment. As the water was diverted, thick layers of peat —  dominated by sphagnum moss, which can hold up to twenty-six times its dry weight in moisture — disappeared or were badly degraded. Thirsty, flammable stands of black spruce took over. The fire tore through the tinderbox of trees. “The Beast,” as the wildfire was famously called, forced the evacuation of 88,000 people, at the last minute, through thick smoke and flying embers. While a natural peatland may not have halted the fire, it would have slowed or tempered the blaze.

It was a classic example of unintended consequences — in this case, born from underestimating nature’s genius. Canada holds between a quarter and a third of the world’s peatlands, including acidic bogs and more alkaline fens as well as swamps and marshes. They can be found across the country, from British Columbia to the Northwest Territories to Nova Scotia, growing many meters deep into the ground. Due to their density of decomposed or decomposing plant material, one square meter of peatland in northern Canada holds approximately five times the amount of carbon as one square meter of tropical rainforest in the Amazon. But the country’s peatlands have been so degraded by the construction of mines and hydroelectric dams, by oil-and-gas developments, and by the urban expansion that we are losing an ecosystem crucial to the prevention of natural disasters such as forest fires — as well as destroying a key mitigator of climate change.

Peatlands have long been maligned. People have called swamp gases that glow at night “corpse candles,” “will-o’-the-wisps,” and “jack-o’- lanterns” — named for a man who, the story goes, sold his soul to the devil and was condemned to walk the bogs at night, carrying a lamp. For centuries, bogs around North America were drained to create agricultural lands; cut out of the earth, dried, and burned as fuel; or destroyed simply because bogs were believed to cause ill health in those who lived nearby. Into the twentieth century, doctors attributed malaria, cholera, and various chills and fevers to the miasma that emanates from these soggy lands.

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